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‘Big Brother’: Fat, food and U.S. culture

A woman goes to the airport to meet the older brother she hasn’t seen in a few years. She’s 40, he’s 44. “Yo, don’t recognize your own brother?” he greets her.

She doesn’t, at first. “I peered into the round face, its features stretched as if painted on a balloon.” He’s no longer her brother, Edison, but “the creature that had swallowed Edison.” When she last saw him he’d weighed about 165. Now he’s close to 400.

Hence the title of Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother. Set in Iowa, it’s about fat, food and American culture. I knew I was going to like it as soon as Shriver had her narrator, Pandora, observe, “I have spent less time thinking about my husband than thinking about lunch.”

So have I – so have most of us. But what Shriver is discussing here is a paradox: the elusive nature of food. After all the anticipation, why can’t we, six weeks later, remember what we ate?

When Pandora asks Edison what he enjoys besides eating, he tells her there isn’t anything, and at that moment she believes she has stumbled on the key to America’s weight problem:

“It wasn’t that eating was so great – it wasn’t – but that nothing was great.” Big Brother is one of the rare new books that address the American malaise without referring to the financial meltdown and the housing bubble.

Shriver is a spiky novelist who loves talking about what others would rather avoid – a predilection built into the title of her most famous book, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), which is about disliking your child. So Much for That (2010) lays out (with figures) how expensive it is to die from cancer.

Fat and our anxiety around it are thus ideal terrain for her. Pandora’s husband, Fletcher, is a cycling fanatic and “nutritional Nazi” who even before Edison’s arrival has grown phobic about food and its pleasures.

Placing a blimp on one side of Pandora and a 46-year-old hunk with a six-pack on the other is schematic, and Shriver isn’t embarrassed about writing essay-novels and using her characters to illustrate her points.

She gets away with it – almost – by creating real people. Neither Edison, a motor-mouth jazz pianist who constantly drops names that mean nothing in Pandora’s circle, nor Fletcher, a tightly wound control freak, is much fun to be around, which may be why they’re both entirely believable.

So it’s a major drag to report that Shriver commits the novelist’s cardinal sin: Having created real people, she doesn’t follow them where they want to go but instead jams them through the paces she has prefabricated. She’s got a plot and, damn it, they’re going to honor it.

She seems to sense her miscalculation, because she tacks on a metafictional coda (I don’t want to ruin the surprise by saying more) that makes the damage it tries to repair even worse – a terrible idea that somebody should have talked her out of.

So, with these lethal defects, would I recommend Big Brother? Absolutely. It confronts the touchy subject of American lard exuberantly and intelligently; it makes you think about what you put in your mouth and why. I knew before I started reading it that Shriver has it in her to write a great novel. This one didn’t change my mind.

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